A Sermon to Transform the American Church

In the 1950s two preachers commanded national attention because of their advocacy, in the name of the Gospel, of theological, cultural, political, and societal issues that challenged conventional American attitudes. In anticipation of a national gathering of church leaders in his city, one of them, James A. Pike bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, invited the other, Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, to preach during the Holy Eucharist at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In an earlier column, I  state why this sermon (preached fifty years ago, December 4, 1960) was so important. In this column I provide excerpts from the sermon.

The Proposal: “Led, I pray by the Holy Spirit, I propose to the Protestant Episcopal Church that it together with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America invite the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to form with us a plan of union both catholic and reformed on the basis of principles I shall later in this sermon suggest. Any other churches which find they can accept both the principles and the plan would also be warmly invited to unite with us.”

Why Union? “I am moved by the conviction that Jesus Christ, whom all of us confess as our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one. This does not mean that his church must be uniform, authoritarian, or a single mammoth organization. But it does mean that our separate organizations, however much we sincerely try to cooperate in councils, present a tragically divided church to a tragically divided world.”

“Never before have so many Americans agreed that the Christian churches, divided as they are, cannot be trusted to bring to the American people an objective and authentic word of God on a political issue. Americans more than ever see the churches of Jesus Christ as competing social groups pulling and hauling, propagandizing and pressuring for their own organizational advantages.”

Principles: “Let me begin by re-emphasizing the requirement that a reunited church must be both reformed and catholic. If at this time we are to begin to bridge over the chasm of the Reformation, those of us who are of the Reformation tradition must recapture an appreciation of all that has been preserved by the catholic parts of the church; and equally those of the catholic tradition must be willing to accept and take to themselves as of God all that nearly five hundred years of Reformation has contributed to the renewal of the church.”

Cutting the Gordian Knot: “I propose that, without adopting any particular theology of historical succession, the reunited church shall provide at its inception for the consecration of all its bishops by bishops and presbyters both in the apostolic succession and out of it from all over the world, from all Christian churches which would authorize or permit them to take part.”

“I mention first this principle of visible and historical continuity not because it is necessarily the most important to the catholic Christian but because it is the only basis on which a broad reunion can take place, and because it is and will continue to be the most difficult catholic conviction for evangelicals to understand and to accept. My proposal is simply to cut the Gordian knot of hundreds of years of controversy by establishing in the united church an historic ministry recognized by all without doubt or scruple. The necessary safeguards and controls of such a ministry will become clear when I am listing the principles of reunion that catholic-minded Christians must grant to evangelicals if there is to be reunion between them.”

Worship: “In worship there is great value in a commonly used, loved, and recognized liturgy. But such liturgy ought not to be imposed by authority or to be made binding upon the Holy Spirit or the congregations. More and more it would be our hope that in such a church, as is here proposed, there would be developed common ways of worship both historical and freshly inspired. But history proves too well that imposed liturgy like imposed formulation of doctrine often destroys the very unity it is designed to strengthen.”

Notes: In my search for an online publication of this sermon, I have found only one, a “full text of the sermon,” that was printed twenty-five years later in “The Ecumenical Review” 38/2 (April 1986), 140-148. Copyright restrictions do not allow me to post this document, but I will continue my efforts to find a copy that can be posted. The photo owned by Presbyterian Historical Society is published in “Eugene Carson Blake” by R. Douglas Brackenridge.

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3 Responses to A Sermon to Transform the American Church

  1. John says:

    Keith,

    Thought it only right to post this comment on your site as it really is a response to your post.

    This is what I think about unity in the church. My perception is that the Church is necessarily pluralistic rather than homogenous just as people and their cultures are plural. Uniformity in either belief or practice is an absurd ideal and it is counter to the work of the Holy Spirit.

    While I believe that God is singular, God is not limited to a single manifestation or expression. God seeks relationship with humans, and by this I don’t think that God relates with humanity as a single entity but with humans as individuals.

    As humans we manifest ourselves differently to different people depending on the circumstances of our relatioships, as well as depending on our circumstances and theirs. So I think God manifests differently to different people and God does so in ways that take into account peoples’ different cultures, histories and circumstances. Those differing manifestations have kindled different understandings about the nature of God and different forms of practice in response to those different understandings. And I think God would have it no other way.

    What then of the notion of unity within Christianity or even within denominations, or even within different faith communities? A polestar, not a destination. A guide and a reminder, not a straightjacket, nor a weapon. For me the concept of unity acts as a guide calling us forward toward a relationship of family and kinship as children of the same god; we may have twins and we may have older and/or younger siblings, but we are all brothers and sisters, and while we have different ways of relating to God, we are still relating to the same God.

    To insist on uniformity is to deny our brothers and sisters the right to their own relationship with God and to interfere with the Work of the Holy Spirit as it seeks to speak to each of us in a language, dialect and idiom which makes sense to us in our own circumstances.

    To insist on such uniformity is really nothing more than an attempt to exert power and control not only over our brothers and sisters but over God – saying in essence: ‘god will be who I will god to be and I will not allow any to disagree with me.’ But when God spoke to Moses God said something very different, saying “I will be whom I will be.” God refused self-definition and forbade the Jews from attempting to depict God in any comprehensive way. Even the name God claims speaks more to multiple possibilities rather than specific certainties. God refused to allow the Jews to define who God was and I believe that is something which God wills for all humanity – God will be whom God will be.

    So I think the Christian aim should not be unity as in uniformity, but unity as in universality – we are all children of the same God, and we are all loved by that God as only a parent can love a child. We are all brothers and sisters in the same family and we are bound together by blood, and for Christians we have been gifted with the special nuance of being bound together by the blood of the Incarnation who died to show us the way. By grace may we one day all gather in peace and harmony in the presence of the one God.

    John

    • John, I’m with you in rejecting the idea that we all must think, feel, and act in exactly the same way. So would virtually all people who through the generations have advocated the uniting of the fractured body of Christ. Some of the strongest advocates of the process that began with Blake’s sermon also spoke of continuing diversity within the united church they envisioned.

      To equate unity and uniformity is similar to equating variety (as in gifts) with chaos. Some ways of practicing unity might lead to uniformity and some modes of practicing variety could lead to chaos. In neither case, however, is the equation necessary. In most instances the equation is highly unlikely.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I intend to post several research briefs and other blogs on COCU and will look forward to further conversation with you.

  2. John says:

    The sermon states …”our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one. This does not mean that his church must be uniform, authoritarian, or a single mammoth organization. But it does mean that our separate organizations, however much we sincerely try to cooperate in councils, present a tragically divided church to a tragically divided world.”

    This is the polestar for my earlier comment. Unity, not uniformity is the principle. If we try to control the faith lives of others we are not really being faithful, we are not expressing our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to move in others, we are not engaging in faith but in politics – we are merely exercising power to force conformity

    Genuine faith is rooted in trust, love, and generosity in all things, including generosity of the spirit, welcoming the faith of others as yet another opportunity for us to engage the Holy Spirit at work in the world.

    John

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